David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

When ideology trumps common sense you get failed policies. That was the case with the city’s approach to “Welfare to Work” programs under the previous two mayors.

In a departure from the policies of the past 20 years, New York City’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) is now proposing programs based in research, labor market data, and a deep understanding of the skill development that is required to assist the large numbers of individuals who are currently unprepared for jobs into the workforce.

Last month, the New York City Council’s General Welfare Committee held a hearing to discuss and provide feedback on four recently released concept papers by HRA aimed at reforming welfare programs. If these proposed new initiatives are adopted, and they should be, the City would have taken a long-overdue step forward in overhauling punitive and wasteful work requirement programs for those receiving public assistance.

The Giuliani and Bloomberg administrations used the work requirement program, known as Back to Work (BTW), and its $50 million budget, as nothing more than a punishment for being poor. If a single mom was in crisis and needed assistance, she was going to have to sit through a 35-hour per week program of tedium and nonsense to claim those benefits, even if that program did nothing to help her chances of finding work. You could tell the meaninglessness in the program’s name alone. More than half of clients had never been employed, yet they were sent to an initiative called “Back to Work”. Huh?

In BTW, participants were told to work on their resumes—even when they didn’t have any job experience to put on those resumes. They were told to go through job listings—even when they had a fourth grade reading level that prevented them from understanding what was in those listings. The proof is in the results: one study showed that six months after being in the program, just three percent of BTW participants were employed. The Community Service Society did a report that showed that young people who had never finished high school and could barely read were being kept out of literacy programs in favor of BTW. Does that sound like a smart policy?

The welfare reform of the 1990s showed some initial success in getting individuals back into the labor market and on their feet. But, unfortunately, the Great Recession ate all of the economic gains for low-income workers, and the post-recession recovery has done little to help them recover. What we’ve learned in the Not-Much-of-a-Recovery is that the last generation’s policies are not enough to help today’s low-income workers. Housing and other costs have soared past any earnings at the low end of the labor market, which have not risen since the Recession.

Stronger Government Measures Needed

Stubborn poverty statistics further bear this out. While those on the higher end of the economic spectrum have essentially rebounded from the economic downturn, many low-income residents are still having a tough time moving forward. According to the latest Census data one in five New Yorkers live below the poverty line. The poverty rate in New York City was 20.9 percent in 2014, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged for more than five years, and shows little sign of returning to its pre-recession levels anytime soon.

What this means is that we’ve got to ensure low-income workers have the opportunities to increase their skills to be able to climb higher up the economic ladder. And that is exactly what the HRA reforms are trying to accomplish. Each of the four concept paper offers a glimpse of programming that will individually assess each participant, and place them in the next-generation education and training programs that will allow them to pursue careers (not just dead-end jobs), get off public assistance, and support their families and communities.

It is good to see the administration using actual research and data, rather than pure ideology, in figuring out how to spend the public’s money. The concept papers are not perfect—the programs should be funded at higher levels, and HRA should allow more diversity in the organizations that can apply to provide services—but we applaud HRA’s new direction. I only hope that the administration gets more publicity and credit for the important changes that it is making.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.